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Innovation can help Solve our Economic, Social and Environmental Issues

The UK faces severe challenges. In the short term, a cold economic climate, high unemployment and a large government deficit threaten to reduce public sector spending. In the medium term, a rising, ageing and unsustainably developing population are likely to lead to global problems: food, water and energy shortages. The effects of climate change will almost certainly compound these threats.

These challenges point towards an uncertain future in which resources are scarce and the threat of hardship looms large. 

It is an absolute imperative that we innovate our way out of the recession. However, the right question is not simply whether we should be innovating, rather, to what purpose are we innovating?

There is a risk in people becoming passive consumers rather than engaged citizens; making impossible demands of the government but contributing little to society themselves.

Among other issues, Technology in a Cold Climate examined the potential of technology to enable and encourage people to become more engaged citizens. The RSA worked with large and small technology companies, public servants, academics and other leading thinkers to explore emerging technologies that could help us meet such challenges.

We commissioned four research papers from accomplished authors to collate the knowledge on fields that seemed fertile to us: the public sector use of technology; the potential of a more digitally interconnected society; the contribution that ICT could make towards a more sustainable society; and a review of UK innovation and the support available to it. We asked the authors for their first recommendations that could help the UK make the most of technology in a cold climate.

These papers and recommendations were subsequently developed during a small conference of experts drawn from large and small technology businesses, the civil service, political parties, think-tanks and academia. These experts met at a symposium at the RSA in late 2009 to use their collective experience to discuss the most important recommendations.

Though a brief project, Technology in a cold climate was able to present a combination of perspectives from academic, policy and business to give a useful snapshot of the current issues around the potential of technology in difficult times. 

The project found that digital connectivity offers significant social, commercial and economic benefits and that the government should intervene if the market fails to provide access to all.

  • With a reliable ICT infrastructure, technology could also make dramatic cuts to the amount of natural resources consumed by displacing carbon intensive activities such as daily commuting with high definition video-conferencing.

  • There is not a sufficiently strong discourse between policy makers and business regarding the nature of the society we are aiming towards and the role that technology could play.

The suggestions in the report are avenues for further exploration in the process of learning to use technology more effectively. The UK could use tools like technology to convert the challenges into the foundation of the next phase of efficient and sustainable growth.

This RSA project is working in partnership with Intellect.

Former RSA staff member Jamie Young worked on the Technology and Climate Change project.